The Political Pamphlet's Origins and Purpose in the U.S.A.

The political pamphlet is an odd little thing, because it is often about massive issues that affect large populations of people, and it is made to move from person to person, which suggests the intent of a broad audience. Yet, with certain exceptions, the political pamphlet is mainly created by members of small communities for those small communities. In some situations it is meant to stir up local ferment, but in many others, it is actually a beacon – for much of its early history in America, the political pamphlet exists like a lighthouse on an island, crying “I am here, and I want to talk.” It is for this reason that their formatting varies, their distribution is counter-intuitively smaller, and that they are not wholly reliable. That is, they are explicitly infused with the agenda of the writer to convince the reader of certain political opinions the pamphleteer holds. As such, the political pamphlet both dispenses information about news and events, and acts as propaganda, to sway readers. They surely want to be heard, but not the way Wikipedia wants to be heard; they do not want to be referenced, they want to be there, with you, the holder of their pamphlets.

Perhaps one of the most famous, an oft-used early example of the American political pamphlet is “Common Sense” by Thomas Paine. It was written in 1775. There can be little doubt, despite my earlier contention, that “Common Sense” was designed to rile up the English colonies that they might revolt against England to form the United States of America. However, “Common Sense” was arguably not a political pamphlet at all – because it was printed by a commercial printer, in multiple editions, for a mass audience. A political pamphlet, for the purposes of this essay, begins as a document written and printed by the same individual or group. This almost always happens on a local level, with a “bedroom press” or a “jobber,” two words for the kinds of presses individuals might have owned throughout the 19th century until the industrial revolution, after which there were automatic presses, and then finally computers.

Fourdrinier Machine Pantone Formula Guide

When the means of production changed – and we know they must have because less writers of political messages do so with letter presses now, in 2015 – the goals also had to shift. Therefore, the political pamphlet means something different depending on how it’s made. The pamphleteer who wishes to affect his social-local still uses the letterpress – by definition, pamphlets published online are accessible by a much broader audience than those which are physically produced in small runs. Pamphleteers who are interested in a smaller, more local community, even perhaps those who are using their pamphlets to make face to face connections, as pamphlets did before digital technologies were used to publish them, must still use the press as his predecessors did. Some of his materials will be different, and others will be strikingly unchanged. The paper machine that produces his paper, for example, will use the same principles that the paper machines in the 19th and 20th centuries used. These principles were widely adopted after their invention by Henry and Sealy Fourdrinier in the Fourdrinier machine.  The pamphleteer will have more and newer options for his ink, which reflects the fact that today, the paper pamphlet is an aesthetic choice, and not a necessarily practical decision. Pantone, a producer of inks for presses, sells The Pantone Formula Guide, which allows pamphleteers to see how a broad range of inks look when they are printed on the page. And of course, he will have access to modern day letterpress technology.

Today, we are more likely to use Twitter and Facebook to announce our thereness, to find larger communities to support and validate the narratives that we see ourselves as belonging to. Political thereness is based in part on conceptions of justice, but is also tied very closely to the desire to be recognized. A person wants to simultaneously be seen as an individual and to belong to larger demographics, and this is accomplished mainly through the politics of identity. In the 19th and early 20th century, they used the platen press, horses and then cars, and sometimes ships. After World War II, the political pamphlet undergoes a radical transformation. It gradually becomes less local and more memetic in its sociality. 

The pamphleteer who chooses more modern technologies must adapt himself to more modern usage, and more modern goals. Now when he announces his political identity, it is no longer within his social-local, rather it is a social-global, and the nature of the technologies he uses structures the very way his political identity is broadcast, and affects his own understanding of his own motivations. He hopes his tweets will reach the world because the technologies he is using can broadcast them to the world – although merely being public does not make a text global. Twitter also has specific kind of user, and so the myth of the “public” on the digital platform informs how information is shared.  When Twitter broadcasts to a global public, it is still broadcasting to a specific public in the global space. When men used the platen press, they hoped to affect their own communities, because the technologies they used could broadcast their message to their own communities. It follows then that the political pamphlet as it exists today may not be the continuity of the political pamphlet as it existed in the late nineteenth century. It may instead be the continuity of a narrative of mass production. If the technologies guide the uses of the media, then we must see narratives as continuities of uses, and we must see the technologies as instrumental in creating those narratives. 

This essay will highlight seven technologies and ten key dates in the development of the medium, from the 1870s to the present. In the late 20th century, they used the photocopier and the postal system. In the 21st century, they use the internet. It will look at the different technologies used to create the narrative of the political pamphlet in American history, and at how as new technologies emerged, the pamphleteer himself had to consider how the new features and limitations could be used to accomplish his goals. Throughout the essay, I will endeavor to show that the change in political pamphlets over time is partially a direct result of the technologies being used to make the pamphlets. Before the computer, and before the internet, the social-local the political pamphlets were designed to create was not merely an idea, disconnected from form. Rather, the technologies that produced the pamphlet themselves ensured local distribution. The pamphleteers own goals were shaped by the technologies they used to create their pamphlets.

The Political Pamphlet's Origins and Purpose in the U.S.A.